As the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant unfolded, one of the greatest dangers of radiation exposure came not from the reactors but from the fuel storage pools. These giant water tanks store spent nuclear fuel rods while the rods cool to manageable levels. After the tsunami engulfed the facility, the power was knocked out, and the pumps that kept water flowing into the pools were disabled. Ultimately firefighters had to don protective suits and brave dangerous levels of radiation to run water hoses into the pools, keeping the rods from boiling away all of their protection.
A recent proposal from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences recommends a new way to mitigate the dangers of these onsite spent fuel pools. It proposes an international plan to collect spent fuel from multiple nations and consolidate them at a single safe facility.
“It’s widely recognized that a nuclear incident anywhere is consequential to us all,” said Robert Rosner, a physicist at the University of Chicago who helped develop the new idea.
The proposal recommends that instead of storing spent nuclear fuel in cooling pools at each plant, multiple countries ship their spent fuel to a single regional holding facility in a nearby nation. The fuel would be stored in dry cask storage while it cools off at these facilities under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency. The team says this system would be easy technologically to implement, safer than pools at every power plant, more cost effective for power plants, and be able to turn a profit for the host country within two years. Countries would bid to host the site, and the one selected would collect revenues from nations whose waste it’s storing.
James Malone, current chief of nuclear fuel development at Lightbridge and former vice president of nuclear fuels at Exelon Generation Company, said that the biggest challenge would be getting countries to participate, rather than any technical challenge.
“We’re not doing anything new on the tech side,” Malone said “This technology has been deployed at Exelon at each site.” He added that spent nuclear fuel is safer in dry storage than in water.
Each of the proposed sites would store up to about 10,000 metric tons of spent fuel in a number of hermetically sealed steel cylinders while they cool enough for other disposal methods. One facility should take up about an acre of land.
The idea for the facilities is that each would be owned and run by a local management agency that strictly conforms to IAEA standards. Nations would ship their spent nuclear fuel and pay a fee for onsite storage, earning a profit for the host country.
According to the plan, the first such regional facility could be open and ready for business as early as 2023. Logistical issues such as where such a facility might be located and other liability issues have not yet been addressed.
The proposal is fully described in a report available on the website of the American Academy.
The Back-End of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle: An Innovative Storage Concept Report
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